Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Thailand’s Deep South: Looking for cookies in a folder that doesn't exist

In computer software jargon, that spells failure after much headache. That seems to be what the government's approach to finding a solution in the deep South conflict is all about.

Not unlike its catastrophically failed rice price-pledging programme, the Thai administration continues to butt heads with critics, many of whom are honest and well-meaning, when it comes to its "Swiss-cheese" policy on the deteriorating Southern quandary. Meanwhile, it forges ahead with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) negotiation card.

It is the card the government believes to be a trump that could help it win a trick, and thus reach a mutually satisfactory peace resolution for all parties involved in the southern insurgency. Sadly, that perceived trump might eventually prove to be only a phantom spade.

After the government's ill-advised initiative of signing a memorandum of understanding with the BRN-C, banners were hung in conflict zones proclaiming that the day of independence for the three southernmost provinces - Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat - had arrived. The "declaration of liberation" also told all Buddhists living in the three provinces to leave; otherwise no one could guarantee their safety.

Lately, the government of Malaysia has started making "suggestions" to Thailand that it is time to consider the autonomy of the three provinces. This is obviously in violation of the Asean Charter and the regional grouping's "policy" of non-interference with the internal affairs of other Asean members.

None of these disturbing incidents seem to deter the Thai government from continuing on the dangerous and futile path it has taken in the deep South, oblivious to the fact that it lacks a bona fide, well-thought-out strategy, let alone a winning one.

Lacking are the three tenets of policy-making - vision, strategy and tactics. Meanwhile, bombs go off on a daily basis, atrocities are committed, innocent lives are wasted. Those who have options flee the area, leaving behind a social vacuum and ethno-religious disparity that is likely to be filled by people with their own agenda - which doesn't include national reconciliation.

And the government is talking about holding public hearings among those remaining?

Much time has passed since our government and leadership had the wisdom to see through the fog of the Indochina wars and initiate a strategy that made sense. Turning the battlefield into a market place was the ingenious initiative of former prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan and his advisors, put forward at the height of the Vietnam War, when everybody was talking "domino theory", that Thailand would be next to fall.

Not only did we not plunge into a sea of trouble, we became a key player in the peace process that eventually mended the deep rift in the Indochina region.

Recently, a similar initiative was put on the table by US Secretary of State John Kerry, as the first step towards Israeli-Palestinian détente. On May 26, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, on the shores of the Dead Sea, Kerry announced that a US$4 billion assistance package would be pumped into the Palestinian economy to improve the livelihood of the Palestinian people in territories where unemployment is at 22 per cent. The existential fear for ones life is usually incomprehensible to people who live in any sovereign country, no matter how destitute they are. But not in Palestine.

Kerry called the initiative a probable "game-changer" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the political impasse has completely stalled the peace process. Surprisingly, Israel is one of the donor countries.

It is hoped that an improvement in the economic condition of the Palestinians will in some significant way reduce their propensity to resort to violence. People, especially youths, can regain some hope of a better life with sustainable economic development. They may have something to look forward to besides death, injury and destruction. These days the Palestinians in the occupied territories lack the most basic needs such as running water, electricity, sewage, health services and education.

The Kerry proposal stemmed from the West's realisation that it is too difficult to make a breakthrough in the political process, while the economic path will be easier for all parties to accommodate and facilitate. The initiative, among other things, calls for the establishment of a residential city and industrial cities in the Jordan Valley, and industrial zones and stations to transfer fuel to the different parts of the West Bank. The Kerry plan was prepared in cooperation with the Mideast Quartet representative Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, and approved by both President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nobody in their right mind would believe that an economic solution could replace or supersede a political resolution between Israel and Palestine. But both approaches are the two necessary conditions for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, and neither alone is sufficient.

In our deep South, "destitute" is too mild a description of the living conditions and psychological construct of the locals, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. For those who have no other desire and inspiration than simply to live in peace and normalcy, we owe them our most serious consideration, not a haphazard and foolhardy handling of their problems.

Beavis and Butthead, the two main characters in a popular American cartoon, might have made viewers laugh when they stubbornly made stupidity some sort of a crusade.

But in reality, with real people, the sanctity of life is not something anyone of us may take lightly and gamble away in the name of misplaced pride.
The Nation, Bangkok

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